India Today - - CONTENTS - —Shougat Das­gupta

Hav­ing ex­pressed his dis­ap­point­ment in his 2016 book The Great Derange­ment, with the fail­ure of lit­er­ary nov­el­ists to con­front cli­mate change, Ami­tav Ghosh put his imag­i­na­tion where his mouth is and wrote that novel him­self. Gun Is­land is a block­buster, a panoramic, in­tensely cur­rent, de­pic­tion of the vi­o­lent up­heavals of the An­thro­pocene, the cat­a­clysmic ef­fect man has had on the planet.

But it would be re­duc­tive to read it as mo­ti­vated solely by en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cern. Ghosh is ask­ing ques­tions here about hu­man cer­tainty, about our faith in rea­son, in ra­tio­nal­ity, in em­piri­cism, in what we think we know.

Di­nanath Dutta is the novel’s ‘Man of Rea­son’. A mid­dle-aged, an­ti­quar­ian book­seller—“there are few ex­pres­sions”, he re­flects wryly, “in the English lan­guage that are less at­trac­tive to women than ‘Rare Book Dealer’”—Di­nanath lives a quiet life be­tween Brook­lyn and Cal­cutta. Ghosted by a long-time girl­friend for no rea­son he can fathom, he finds him­self in the lat­ter, throw­ing him­self into so­cial sit­u­a­tions, in con­trast to his monk-like soli­tude in the

US, hop­ing to find romance. At a party, he meets a “glib, vain, pre­co­cious, know-it-all” rel­a­tive (fa­mil­iar to read­ers from Ghosh’s Sun­dar­bans novel, The Hungry Tide), who in­tro­duces him to the ob­scure legend of ‘Bon­duki Sada­gar’, the gun mer­chant. Di­nanath (or Deen, as he is known in Brook­lyn) had writ­ten his doc­tor­ate the­sis on the Ben­gali folk­loric hero Chand Sada­gar, a mer­chant who tries, and mostly fails, to “es­cape the per­se­cu­tion of Manasa Devi, the god­dess who rules over snakes and all other poi­sonous crea­tures”. Bon­duki Sada­gar ap­pears to be a vari­a­tion, in­trigu­ing enough to Di­nanath that he up­ends his life to go on a wild goose chase through the Sun­dar­bans, Venice and Los An­ge­les, among other places. In the process, he loses al­most all hold on rea­son.

“It’s a strange feel­ing,” he tells his friend, the fa­mous pro­fes­sor Giac­inta Schi­avon, “as though I’m not in con­ if I were fad­ing away, los­ing my will, my free­dom.” Schi­avon is key to the novel, an ex­trav­a­gant Vene­tian, the bril­liance of whose life con­trasts with the penum­bra cast by the death of her hus­band and daugh­ter. It is she who chal­lenges Di­nanath on his ‘ra­tio­nal’ shib­bo­leths. “I pride my­self,” he tells her early in the novel, “on be­ing a ra­tio­nal, sec­u­lar, sci­en­tif­i­cally-minded per­son. I am sorry if this does not con­form to stereo­types of In­di­ans—I will not, on any account, go along with a whole lot of su­per­sti­tious mumbo-jumbo.”

Meet­ing Ghosh in a small con­fer­ence room in the util­i­tar­ian busi­ness cen­tre of a lux­ury Delhi ho­tel, it’s hard to rec­on­cile this kindly, goa­teed, even cud­dly fig­ure with the sto­ry­telling shaman of Gun Is­land, this apos­tle of the ir­ra­tional, of the be­witch­ingly strange. It seems faintly lu­di­crous to be dis­cussing the un­canny in a set­ting so bland, so pro­saic. Un­set­tling even, like Ghosh’s own im­age over­leaf, or the photo on his phone that he shows me—an aerial view of Venice in which it is in­dis­tin­guish­able from the Sun­dar­bans. Un­heim­lich, Freud called it, the fa­mil­iar made strange. We think of great cities—L.A., Venice—as the acme of hu­man achieve­ment, of what man can build. Ghosh re­minds us of their fan­tas­ti­cal, preter­nat­u­ral qual­i­ties, of their vulnerabil­ity. And so Di­nanath arrives in an L.A. ringed by wild­fires, a hellscape. In Venice, he en­coun­ters a venomous spi­der, like him a vis­i­tor from warmer climes. About a hun­dred pages into Gun Is­land, Di­nanath gets on a plane, a “man-made womb, where every­thing served to pro­tect me from that world of mud and its slith­er­ing, creep­ing in­hab­i­tants”.

It is, he comes to see, an­other of his delu­sions. A man at the risk of dis­ap­pear­ing into him­self, Di­nanath is forced into con­fronta­tion with the out­side. He must find the con­nec­tions be­tween ser­pents, the el­e­men­tal mud of the Sun­dar­bans, the su­per­nat­u­ral prop­er­ties of folk­lore and the eco­log­i­cal calami­ties of the present and the hu­man calami­ties, with mi­grants forced to aban­don their homes in such num­bers and under such cir­cum­stances that the idea of home itself is ren­dered ob­so­lete. Gun Is­land is not al­ways con­vinc­ing but it forces us to ask ques­tions about what we do find con­vinc­ing. And why.

GUN IS­LAND by Ami­tav Ghosh PENGUIN `699; 288 pages

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